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Year in Review: 2019

Tam Pham
Tam Pham
8 min read

I usually write a review every year on my birthday to reflect (past editions here:  2018, 2017, 2016, and 2015). Here's what my 2019 looked like:

Finishing up my chess sabbatical

I spent the first part of 2019 finishing up my days of chess tournaments and teaching kids. Chess consumed my entire days. I’d study hours of chess theory on top of driving after school to teach classes around the Bay Area. Not to mention the 6-8 private chess lessons every week at students’ houses in the evenings and weekends.

I loved reading biographies of Stephen Curry, Kobe Bryant, Steve Martin and admired how much they dedicated to pushing themselves to their absolute limit. I wanted to get into “the arena” just like them and used chess as my medium, where I made tremendous progress rising from an average player to defeating a national chess master in a rated tournament, one of my proudest accomplishments to date.

While I absolutely love chess and will always be a student of the game, I knew that my gifts to the world extend far beyond the 64 square board, which prompted me to look for my next opportunity.

Finding my dream job

After some deep soul searching and consulting with friends on what I wanted in my next role, I posted on Facebook that I was looking for a new opportunity and was immediately swarmed with interest. My inbox had 52 new messages. My schedule for the next two weeks was completely booked up with calls. I felt like a hot girl at a crowded bar in the best way possible.

I only had one problem.

The role that I was looking for was basically to be a CEO, which seemed impossible to find.

I wanted to have my hands in a variety of cookie jars. Mainly growth, community, and operations. The roles that I got offered pigeon-holed me into a pure growth role or solely a community role. I had this feeling of not being “good enough” because I wasn’t a specialist like my friends in SEO or Facebook Ads.

I contemplated giving up this dream of trying to do everything and just accept a gig deepening my skills in one of those three areas. I wasn’t making any income during my chess sabbatical and my savings slowly faded away to San Francisco rent. I had to get over my shame and ask three different friends to loan me several thousands of dollars to keep me my mind from racing about survival.

On the outside, it seemed like I had so much demand for my next role and that I could choose anything I’d like! On the other hand, I started to feel a bit desperate, and sad that this dream job that I had imagined might not exist.

Enter Jayson Gaignard.

Jayson messaged me out of the blue after reading my Facebook status and I felt very surprised. I’ve admired Jayson’s work from afar building a tight-knit community of entrepreneurs called MMT. I had been a long-time listener to his podcast, Community Made, and read his book on hosting mastermind dinners which were incredibly helpful when I started hosting dinners years ago. I loved his values and appreciated how he thought about building genuine relationships and doing business.

I knew so much about him but he knew very little about me. We had only talked for five minutes in-person when we attended the same charity event in Toronto the previous summer. I found him to be very bold to reach out to me for this opportunity, which of course, I wanted to learn more about.

To make a long story short, Jayson was looking for someone to do the work that I had written down on my “dream job” document since day one. Jayson wanted to start a local highly curated community of fascinating entrepreneurs and start more chapters around the world, and he needed someone to lead the charge. It felt as if the stars were aligned and the universe answered both of our prayers.

It was a big risk for both of us to say yes to each other. There’s me, leaving everything behind, moving from California to Canada, to start a new chapter in my life. There’s also Jayson, sponsoring my visa, and trusting me with his network that he has spent years cultivating to lead a new community.

When you really want something, you’d do everything you can to make it happen. And here I am learning skills that I wouldn’t have initially signed up for on my own like facilitating large groups, direct sales, positioning, branding, and most importantly… building relationships at the highest level.

I feel grateful, focused, and excited about how I can grow + express my full self into this work.

Transitioning to Toronto

The first few weeks in Canada made me cry.

The deep relationships that I had built in the Bay Area were no longer accessible and I felt incredibly lonely. The process of moving to a new country and dealing with the logistics of getting a new bank account, social identification number, bed, and even utensils felt like it was never going to end. Figuring out my neighborhood, getting used to the transportation system, and finding my “spots” in the city while at the same time… working hard at the dream job that I fought so hard to get, was slightly difficult to balance.

After many calls back home, long deep breaths, and time, I finally feel at home here up north. I found my dance studio (aka my third home), yoga studio, favorite cafes, and restaurants. I met new friends and hosted a variety of gatherings like improv nights and picnics to build deeper relationships. I had the great pleasure to host my friends from the Bay Area that visited me for a week followed by my mom and brother visiting me for another week as well.

I love Toronto. Canadians are AWESOME. Don’t quote me on this though as I prepare to face my first winter…

I love myself

I hired a life coach a few years ago to help me break bad habits and build a body that I would be proud of. It actually worked and I was suddenly in the best shape of my life. But when I traveled for extended periods of time to Cape Town, Chiang Mai, Mexico, and more, I let myself eat more food and work out less to simply enjoy myself.

I wouldn’t have changed it any other way, but I started to feel like shit again for not being back to the best shape of my life. That was when I realized that there was a deeper root cause here. Why couldn’t I just be happy with my body just the way that it is?

I went to see a therapist for the first time in my life. I told her about how I would look in the mirror, pinch my belly fat, and say that I hate my body. I hated that I wasn’t fit. I hated that I wasn’t tall. I hated that I didn’t have facial hair. I had such a negative body image that I surprised myself when I confessed my feelings during that first session.

A horrible memory resurfaced about how excited I was to start P90X in grade 7, posting a “before” video on YouTube with me shirtless, eager to touch my new six-pack abs after 90-days. For many reasons, the 13-year-old me could not stick to such an intense program and I gave up after three weeks. Friends at school would ask me where my six-pack abs were.

I remember being a friend’s birthday party where we were all squished in a small room, simply hanging out, until three friends pinned my arms and legs down. I didn’t know what was going on until another friend turned off the lights and the birthday boy hit “play” on my P90X before video. Everyone exploded with laughter as we all watched the entire video. I physically couldn’t move an inch and had to lay there and just take it. I don’t remember if I cried or how that might have affected me, but dam. No wonder why I’ve been so insecure about my body for so long.

Over the next five months, my therapist and I worked closely together on how to heal and improve from these narratives. I stopped touching my belly after a big meal and restrained myself from pinching my stomach before I step into the shower. I started looking in the mirror and complimenting my beautiful eyes (have you seen my eyes? my eyes are fucking gorgeous), my two cute dimples, and my beaming smile. I started comparing myself less to others and focused my attention entirely on myself.

The feeling of self-hatred quickly rose to neutral and now, I’m arguably in worse shape than when I started seeing my therapist, but I love myself 10x more. Ain’t that some good shit?

¿Quieres bailar?

In January 2019, I tackled one of my biggest fears: partner dancing.

I’m breathing deeply as I type this story because dancing, in general, was scary as it is, but dancing with someone else, who sometimes is crazy cute!!!, and stepping on their shoes or being off rhythm scared the bejeebers out of me.

I preach a lot about not caring what other people think of you, but in certain situations, I can’t seem to follow my own advice and am constantly in my head overthinking things.

I asked my best friend in the world, Chloe “confident” Lim, to accompany me to my first Bachata dance class. For those who have never heard of Bachata before, it’s like a slower and sensual version of Salsa, basically the dance that most intimidated me. But for some sick reason, I can’t simply not do the things that I’m most scared of. I just had to.

My first class was not a disaster and I survived! Sure, I might have jolted out when the social dance started after my 5th lesson. Sure, I might have only danced to one song when I attended my first social dance six months later. Sure, I might have been incredibly off rhythm and knew two moves. But I’m mother fucking doing it, bitches!! (sorry for my French, blame Canada)

I’m now dancing 3-4 times a week learning both Bachata and Salsa. It’s incredibly fun and challenging. I often see my scared shitless self in new beginners that show up to class and I try to be extra welcoming because I knew how hard it was just to show up. Bravo.

Books I loved

Some great books that I’ve read in 2019: Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins, Daring Greatly by Brene Brown, The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish, and Belong by Radha Agrawal. 📚

If 2019’s theme was transition, 2020’s theme is going to be around focus.

Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

I love asking this question to anyone I meet, “If we were to meet a year from today with a bottle of champagne, what are we celebrating?”

  • For work, it would be to building the Catalyst chapter from the ground up. My champagne moment would be curating and serving 125 of the most fascinating entrepreneurs in Toronto while achieving an 85% retention rate and a 9/10 NPS score.
  • For dance, it would be going deeper in both Salsa and Bachata. My champagne moment would be to go back to the Toronto Salsa Festival next summer, where I had previously stood on the sidelines watching everyone else dance because I had very little confidence to do the basic moves, and dance the entire weekend non-stop.
  • For romantic relationships, it would be to stop dating casually. My champagne moment would be in a serious relationship with someone who makes me feel safe, inspired, and alive. (I welcome any introductions, please ask me for my google doc of my ideal partner. 😉)
  • For community, it would be to keep prioritizing quality time with people I love. My champagne moment would be more of a feeling than a specific metric. If I got hit by a bus tomorrow, I want to feel happy to have died knowing that I had an abundance of human connection in my life.

Here's to an amazing 2020!

P.S. If you feel inclined to share, I would love to know your answer to the champagne question.

“If we were to meet a year from today with a bottle of champagne, what are we celebrating?”
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Tam Pham Twitter

I'm a writer and bachata dancer currently bouncing around Latin America. Trying to make the most out of my one wild and precious life.

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